Maninka tradition: A family affair

Maninka tradition: A family affair

Iis a truism that all popular music has as its roots melodies and traditions that go back many generations. This is as true of rhythm and blues as it is of rock and roll or soul music, but it is most notable with the West African genre of popular music. Review by Stephen Williams.

The three instruments that underpin traditional music – the kora (a multistringed upright lute), the balafon (xylophone) and ngoni (a large bass harp) are all interpreted within the output of today’s musicians.

The way contemporary music has evolved owes much to the introduction of the guitar, and the development of large ensembles, or orchestras. For thousands of years the Maninka people (otherwise referred to as the Mandé people of Guinea and Mali) had a stringed-instrument tradition with indigenous harps and lutes predominating, but around 50 years ago an influential innovator called Facelli Kanté introduced the guitar to Maninka music.

One of his nephews, Kanté Manfila, further modernised the tradition, playing the lead electric guitar in Les Ambassadors in the 1970s and 1980s. Manfila’s younger brother, Djessou Mory Kanté, is renowned as the guitarist that such world-class singers such as Salif Keita and Sekouba Bambino turn to when they want the very best – whether to record or tour.

But River Strings is Djessou Mory Kanté own album, a CD of instrumental tracks recorded in the international singing star Salif Keita’s very own Studio Moffou in Bamako, Mali.

Djessou Mory Kanté’s acoustic and electric guitars are accompanied by one of Mali’s best-known stars and leader of the legendary Super Rail Band, Djelimady Tounkara, a fellow master guitarist.

Kanté’s wonderfully crafted tracks have been described as ‘understated but masterly, gentle but beguiling’. As well as being accompanied by Tounkara’s fluid and precise supporting guitar work on two of the album’s tracks, there is also a electric bass guitar lending its presence, played by Kerfala Kenté, and ngoni played by Harouna Sameké.

Traditional percussion is also featured with djembe and doumdouba, calabash and shekere.

Charly Coulibaly, who adds a dash of keyboards, is credited with the engineering of the album, the production overseen by Fall Abdramane.

The distinctly Mandé sound created by Kenté and his associates give the listener eminently listenable interpretations of some of the region’s best-known melodies.

But traditions coming down through the generations are also evident in the way that Kanté is just one part of a family of musicians, a reflection of the ages-old griot tradition where whole families would pass down,
father to son, the epic histories of their kings and heroes, keeping alive a historical record stretching back much further than living memory.

So it is with Djessou Mory Kanté, whose brother Kanté Manfila first found fame in the 1970s as the guitarist and chef d’orchestre for Les Ambassadeurs. He may not be a singer-songwriter, but the lyrical quality of his instrumental work is unquestionable.

Of course, it was Les Ambassadeurs where (after being lured away from the Super Rail Band), the great Salif Keita found fame.

Keita went on to international fame with a string of best-selling albums, and sell-out tours that took this remarkable music around the world. And Djessou Mory Kanté, as a friend and colleague of Keita, is a fixture in this singer’s touring band – perhaps one of Africa’s best-loved acts. He was also the guitarist and arranger for Sékouba Bamba’s stand-out 2012 album, The Griot’s Craft.

In fact, it was only thanks to a break in the touring schedule that this album could be recorded – at Keita’s Bamako studio.

That is very fortunate, for it is the first modern recording to showcase this unique guitarist on acoustic and electric guitars. Here, on 13 wonderfully crafted tracks, we hear a master at work, keeping alive and taking forward one of the world’s great musical heritages.


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Written by Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams is a freelance journalist, based in London. A specialist on Africa, his remit also includes the Middle East and North Africa. Williams currently works for a number of London-based print publications including New African magazine.

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